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Hot Reads: The Huskers Have to Defuse Iowa’s Third-Down Bombs

November 21, 2018

No matter what tempo a team chooses to use, football is still a possession game. The primary goal on offense is to score and that requires the ball. The primary goal on defense is to get the ball back for the offense, and not via kickoff.

This basic setup is why every football coach ever has spent a lot of time talking about third down. It's big in every game, but it might be huge when Nebraska and Iowa meet on Friday in Iowa City.

Particularly when the Hawkeyes have the ball.

Iowa's averaging more points (31.5) than it has in a decade thanks to an improved passing game. The Huskers' pass defense, a liability early in the season, has been steadily improving since allowing 455 yards to Northwestern. Only one team, Ohio State, has completed better than 56 percent against Nebraska over the last five games and the Buckeyes' 252 yards passing is the most over the last four games.

Nebraska's is in a much better position to take its shots against quarterback Nate Stanley and a deadly tight end duo than it would have been two months ago, but actually winning this specific matchup is going to require winning on third down. And that's going to require a reversal of season-long trends for both teams.

Iowa has one of the lowest third-and-long rates in the country, but also one of the lowest third-and-short rates. The Hawkeyes spend a bunch of time in third-and-medium and that's been fine for this offense. Iowa ranks 25th nationally in third-down conversion percentage and seventh when in third-and-long. The Hawkeyes are having big success via the pass precisely when most teams shouldn't, averaging 9.4 yards per attempt on third-and-7 or longer.

"it takes a good plan, but most importantly, it's the execution," Kirk Ferentz said this week in an attempt to explain the third-down success. "To get a big play, either somebody has to blow a coverage or somebody has to work to get open, and then just like we're talking about, if you have a couple guys that can take the ball and do something with it afterwards, that helps a lot, too."

Perhaps more strange than Iowa's success in disadvantageous situations is the Huskers' lack of it when the odds are in their favor. Nebraska has put teams in third-and-long 57.2 percent of the time (19th nationally). It has gotten off the field in those situations just 33.7 percent of the time (121st nationally). Last week Michigan State was 5-for-11 on third-and-long. Illinois was 3-for-5 the previous week.

This is one part of Nebraska's defense that hasn't seen much if any improvement as the season has progressed. It's a bit strange in a big-picture sense, but not within the context of this season. It's how the Huskers are on defense at this point, and how they're fairing here in this game will likely tell us a lot about how it's going to go.

If both teams play to form there figure to be a lot of third-and-longs when Iowa has the ball. Based on 11 games this season, it's a battle you'd expect Iowa to win.

But if you expect Nebraska to win on Friday, you'll probably need to see the exact opposite result.

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